Sense and Sensitivity in the Trump Era

by Nikita-Kiran Singh

If I could describe the political events that have transpired in the past week in one word, it would be irony.  The irony of Trump being hailed as “someone who tells it like it is” followed by post-election backpedaling suggesting “he never really meant it when he said all those things about Mexicans, Muslims, and women”; the irony of Democrats being asked to extend kindness to Trump supporters instead of labeling them as bigots after having been continuously derided as leftist enforcers of political correctness; the irony of the educated being labeled as elite while Trump, the heir of a fortune and member of the top 1% club, was heralded as a champion of the people; the irony of the media thinking that their derision of Trump would lead to his demise, only for him to be well-received by his supporters.  If this election has shown us anything, it’s that we need to re-examine our approach to politics, and investigate the forces that have contributed to this election’s tension.

As a writer, I empathize with the journalists and publications who felt the need to openly reject Trump’s politics; protecting the search for truth and freedom of expression is a responsibility fundamental to journalism.  Donald Trump has frequently silenced or indirectly endangered those who disagree with him – even threatening to jail his political opponent – in a way that his contenders did not, and I don’t think it was unreasonable for the media to express their overwhelming concern.  Unfortunately, the downfall of the media’s approach is that they did not understand who they were speaking to, and they did not address the fact that people don’t agree on what “the truth” is exactly.  By directing criticism of Trump’s tactics to an audience craving and valuing his anti-establishment and contrarian stances, the media paradoxically contributed to his rise.  CNN’s bias towards Clinton was viewed as evidence of entrenched political power, while FOX’s complicated mix of antagonism and sympathy towards Trump was seen as refreshing.  To have a meaningful, constructive conversation with someone who disagrees with you, it is important to begin on common ground, but that common ground was never discovered.

It is undeniable that most Americans are frustrated with their political establishment, and this is likely the force that most harshly contributed to the election results.  As someone who ardently supported Sanders, and then Clinton, I’ve been reflecting on why this election has felt more disappointing than others.  The time in the summer I told my mom we should go to San Francisco this year in case Trump was elected is no longer a hypothetical – it’s reality.  My grandfather’s cousin who resides in Los Angeles was told to stock up on food before election night in case riots erupted.  The stakes of this election were higher for some than for others, and now it seems that people’s concerns for their safety are being taken very seriously or not at all, yet another reflection of the divisive political atmosphere.  While many of Trump’s voters may disagree with his bigotry, the fact that they all voted for him regardless means they were willing to dismiss the effects of his hate speech.  I’m not quite sure which is worse – being bigoted oneself or willingly overlooking someone else’s bigotry.  It often feels as though we live in a world where it’s worse to be called a bigot than to actually be bigoted.  More than anything, it is deeply saddening to know that voters felt the alleviation of their own suffering might lie in the hands of someone who has openly fueled hatred of others.

I hope that respecting each other’s fundamental human rights regardless of our political differences or privileges is not perceived as an ideal reserved for the educated elite.  However, if this kind of discourse is being perceived as condescending or elitist, we need to ask ourselves why, consider how to communicate differently, and recognize barriers to accessibility of information and education.  On a related note, it is unfair to solely characterize education as elitist when racism and sexism are forms of elitism themselves.  The question now becomes how we can address the biases individuals hold in such a way that they are receptive to feedback, and how we can address our own biases without becoming defensive.  Belittling people for their political views is neither effective nor respectable, and rarely makes people want to listen to what you have to say.  At the same time, sometimes it feels like there is no polite way to disagree with someone’s viewpoint, particularly if that viewpoint disrespects others’ rights.  Perhaps finding common ground in this sense requires a change in culture and context with time (on a related note, it is interesting to consider how differently hateful political rhetoric was received in Canada than in the United States in 2015).

Everyone, by virtue of their own lived experience, has a biased view of the world.  The problem with the argument that racism or misogyny no longer exist or played little to no role in the election result is that it entirely overlooks the fact that the bulk of oppressive bias, particularly in the 21st century, is implicit.  You don’t need to be consciously prejudiced to reinforce an idea that is.  It is valuable to become aware of what our personal biases are so that we can correct for them (you can try Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test for racial bias; your results may surprise you).  After taking the test, my results indicated “a slight automatic preference for European American children compared to African American children,” and I am a person of colour myself.  This is how deeply seated racial bias and social conditioning can be – you can view the world in a way that is unfavourable to yourself without being consciously aware of doing so.  Like all research tests, there are some limitations; for example, the test-retest reliability is somewhat weak (my result changed to “little to no automatic preference” the second time around, but back to a slight preference the third time). The main idea is that it’s not unnatural to have biases and important to reflect on them, and the test can serve as a useful tool in facilitating that process.

The far-reaching implications of implicit biases are often overlooked because it’s difficult to address what you don’t see.  For example, some social groups – particularly women – are more likely to be labeled as overly emotional than others, and sensitivity is almost instantaneously negatively connoted.  In other words, we selectively attribute the label of “overly sensitive” based on who is speaking rather than what they are saying.  I do not mean to say that an excess of sensitivity is not possible; like all things, it requires a balance.  What I feel is a problem is when others’ expression of emotion or refusal to be silenced is perceived as weakness.  The problem with labeling others overly sensitive is that it is a way of dismissing an argument without truly engaging with it.  It further ingrains the idea that rationality and emotion are mutually exclusive, and that it isn’t possible to express discontent while explaining one’s reasons for doing so.  There is nothing enlightened in thinking that labeling someone hypersensitive and holding their emotions against them advances your own argument.

If we hope to close some of the division that has risen this political season, empathy – a bridge between emotion and rationality encompassing how the two interact – is key.  We cannot dismiss others’ emotions, whether we agree with them or not, and simultaneously hope to have a meaningful conversation on how to work together with people we disagree with. What is particularly problematic is the politicization of this idea.  I would hope that the concept of empathy would be deemed valuable regardless of political ties – conservative, liberal, socialist, centrist, or otherwise.  By tying sensitivity to the political left, we dismiss the capacity of everyone regardless of political leaning to be emotionally-driven and suggest that empathy is only possible with leftist politics.  Empathy is a concept central to being human, irrespective of politics.

Throughout the campaign period, the question of how to balance freedom of speech with freedom from harmful speech has frequently been raised.  We often appeal to our right to freedom of speech, but are less inclined to discuss our responsibilities associated with that freedom.  This debate has less to do with whether we can speak about certain things (what is meant by freedom of speech) and more to do with whether we should.  There is a difference between legality and ethics, and this nuance is often lost through the conflation of freedom of speech with freedom from consequence.  It is puzzling at best and hypocritical at worst to be concerned about freedom of speech while concurrently suggesting that individuals remain silent about their grievances.  It is equally important to consider the quality of information we receive from others in informing our opinions.  To learn about the effects of class oppression, it is important to speak with individuals experiencing economic hardship.  To gain exposure to the effects of racism, we should converse with people who experience racism.  To better understand how oppression manifests today, it is essential to listen to the stories of people affected.  As intuitive as this concept may seem, we often forget that exposure to diverse viewpoints is essential to fostering empathy.  Recognizing that others may be more qualified to speak on a topic than I am doesn’t mean I have been silenced or that my freedom of speech has been threatened; it means that I’ve recognized that in some contexts, it is more valuable – to myself and to others – for me to listen rather than speak.

John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill, in their conceptions of liberalism, warned of “tyranny of the majority,” when the majority of a given society places limitations on minorities’ rights through an imbalance of political power.  I hope that now more than ever we continue to defend the rights of our political minorities, and those who are disempowered even if they do belong to a majority.  Now that Trump is in power, he may not feel the need to continue his line of divisive discourse, and this may be perceived as a betrayal to the supporters who grew fond of his crude rhetoric.  Perhaps the most striking irony of all would be if Trump does decide to lead moderately and his own base were to turn against him.

While this election season has been characteristically negative in many ways, I hope we are all inspired to consider the role our biases and style of communication impact the dialogue we hold with others, regardless of who we are and where we live.  Let’s take this opportunity to exercise empathy often, share our perspectives in a way that doesn’t demean others, and appreciate why people are happy or upset about the election’s outcome.  After all, resiliency does not mean to remain unaffected; it means to bounce back.  In the optimistic words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants […] and for a time, they seem invincible.  But in the end, they always fall.  Always.”

Photography courtesy of Zosia Czarnecka.

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